Derek Martin: The British Equivalent of Anglophile
By Larry Jaffee
LONDON—Last issue I gave you a taste of my mid-April meeting with
Derek Martin (Charlie Slater) at an upscale Kensington hotel. That
article merely scratched the surface of our conversation, as you can
see from below. During the course of it, we exchanged "Walford
Gazettes." As it turns out, Derek serves as editor of a weekly
newsletter distributed to castmembers and crew at the BBC studio.
"It's not a proper newspaper like yours," he said, making my day. I
start the dialogue by telling him how I watched the previous night's
WG: Since the EastEnders episodes we see in the states is five years
behind the U.K., more than half the cast seems to have changed. It was
nice to finally see a recognisable face — yours. You must have one of
the longer tenures on the show these days.
DM: Eight years this July. Besides Adam, Barbara, Pam, Steve and June,
WG: You come from the East End.
DM: Yes, born and raised in Bow.
WG: How similar was Bow to Walford in the way it's depicted?
DM: It's very similar the way it's built—the terraced houses, the
local pub. But the East End now has changed completely from what it
was. In the 1950s and 1960s—that's Walford. Now 50 percent of the East
End is made up of Asian residents. In the East End, the shmata
(clothing) trade was predominantly Jewish. When we'd have fish on
Fridays, my mum would cook with matzoh meal, not bread crumbs. We used
to have a Jewish cake at Christmas. By the 1970s, that was gone. It's
now the Asian shmata trade, know what I mean?
WG: You worked as a stuntman before becoming an actor. What was the
most dangerous stunt that you were involved in?
DM: I did a lot of Doctor Who. I crashed a few cars, fencing,
fighting, running through a brick wall. War films — played a German
and got blown up. When I became a stuntman you didn't have to become
qualified. Whereas now they have to be sub-aqua (underwater), they
have to do skydiving, horse riding, karate. It's a completely
different game now, so technical. Stuntmen of my era did the job; we
got it done.
WG: You must have been pretty fit.
DM: Yes, I was fit, still very fit.
WG: But you never landed in hospital?
DM: There was a series called Elizabeth R. with Glenda Jackson in
1971. In the episode, Elizabeth I sends the troops to Ireland to quell
the rebellion. It was down in a forest in Surrey (London suburb). I'm
at the head on horseback in full armour. A shot rings out. All the
hooligans and Irish rebels come running out and they're stabbing and
killing. The director says, "Derek I want to do another take. Is that
all right?" So I say "fine." He says, "Same thing again." This time my
foot gets caught in the stirrup. I can feel my neck or collarbone
break. They carted me off in a stretcher to the local hospital. The
director says, "Don't forget, You're at the studio in three weeks.
You're playing a horseman named Cecil when Elizabeth is dying." In
three week's time I've got my arm in a sling and I'm in pain, and my
line was "Ain't she dead yet?" I realised I was too old to do this any
WG: How old were you then?
DM: 38 or 39. I always wanted to be an actor like Cagney in the films.
I packed it in as a stuntman and got myself an agent. I got some
acting bits until this thing called Law and Order, which put me on the
map (see review, page 9). From then on, everything's been great. I'm
still playing the same character. Because I never went to drama or
stage school, my repertory is from the street. A lot of my characters
are based on people I knew — villains, coppers. But it's all Derek.
WG: Law and Order got a lot of attention in the U.K. because it was
about corruption, right?
DM: I had to testify before the House of Commons. I said, "Wait, I'm
just an actor."
WG: How much are you like Charlie Slater?
DM: Charlie Slater has got a bit of me in it. I put me into the
character. That's how I've gotten away with it for 40 odd years. I
came into the business in 1962.
WG: EastEnders certainly has given Charlie some dramatic moments, such
as when he find out that his brother Harry was responsible for getting
DM: We were always under the impression that it was some school boy
behind the bicycle sheds. I went ape shit when I found out it was
WG: The actor who played him died a few years ago.
DM: Yes, Michael Elphick. He started off as an electrician. Remember
when I spit in his face in the kitchen? I could have killed him. I
tell him, "I never want to see you again." We went to the studio
canteen for lunch, and he had a pint of Guinness and a triple whiskey.
He couldn't do the scene when we got back. They cleared the set. He
came out crying. I said, "Michael, go home and sleep it off." Nine
o'clock next morning. Two takes, done. Good actor. He was in the film
Gorky Park with Lee Marvin.
WG: When they gave you the character sketch for Charlie, did you think
to yourself, "Can't I have at least one son?"
DM: Yes, I did. It's funny. when I went to the audition for
EastEnders, there were five dads, five Charlies. They already cast the
girls. You had to do a little speech, "I'm Charlie Slater. I'm a cab
driver, I've been a lorry driver. I love my girls (daughters). At the
end of the day, this was a Saturday, one of the producers says, "Thank
you everybody. Even if you don't get the part, I'll still use you in
future things. We'll let you know in two or three weeks. On Tuesday my
agent phoned and said "You've got it. Charlie Slater." John Yorke, who
was then the executive producer and is now head of drama of BBC,
lovely man, said to me, "Derek, we don't anyone to act. We want
everyone to be normal." I said, "John, I've done that for the last 40
odd years." There's always been a bit of Derek in my characters. They
don't want me to put an accent on; they just want me to be natural.
WG: That comes off on the show. Weren't you also considered to play
the role of Frank Butcher at one time?
DM: Yes, I was. Originally I was up for Leslie Grantham's part (Den
Watts). It went down to the last five and [EastEnders creator] Julia
Smith called my agent. I worked with her on a series called Angels
about nurses. Julia said, "I like Derek very much but he's not the
ladies-type man. He's more the hard man, so thank you very much." So
Leslie got it, and of course, it did wonders for him. A few years
later, Julia called my agent and said "we got this part Frank Butcher
that Derek would be perfect for." I just started the second series of
my own show King and Castle. It would have been four months before I
would be available, and they needed me to start in three weeks. So I
didn't get that either.
WG: Otherwise you would have taken it.
DM: Yeah, yeah. Of course, Mike [Reid] did it wonderfully. Mike and I
started as extras in war films together, back in 1962. You can't do
WG: So it's three times the charm with Charlie Slater.
DM: They've told me they want me to stay forever.
WG: You mentioned Leslie Grantham. Didn't you work with him early in
DM: We did a play many, many years ago. He played a small hoodlum. I
was playing the lead.
WG: You have great chemistry with Laila Morse (Big Mo), Charlie's mum-in-law.
DM: She's the same way: she is what you get.
WG: People in show business, are tight-knit. Aren't they?
DM: I'm a member of the Grand Order of the Water Rats.
WG: John Bardon told me about that group. When he was in New York, an
American soap actress had a small dinner party in his honour at the
DM: He absolutely went ape. He said, "Derek, that is Mecca." He told
me all about it, and said it was "absolutely stunning." He loved it.
WG: Have you ever been to New York?
DM: Since the 1940s I have been more American than I have been
English. I/m not saying this because you're American. Whether it was
Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens, I understand every single word. In New
York, I know certain alleys where Cagney's character got killed in the
movies. I know all those places, so I'd never get lost in New York.
Interesting. I know the American civil war backwards. I've always
wanted to go to America, to Hollywood. The nearest I've got to the
U.S. recently is Heathrow. I've got twin boys, David and Jonathan.
They'll be 30 this July. When then they were eight, I took them to
Florida. We had two wonderful weeks. I will go back [to the U.S.].
Remember Dick Martin (of Rowan & Martin and who died this past May)?
WG: Sure. Any relation to you?
DM: No, but the lady he was married to, Dolly Read, we were all extras
together. They lived in Malibu next to Frank and Barbara Sinatra. She
said, "Derek, you should come over and play golf. Thursday nights we
have a poker game, Barbara, Angie Dickinson, Gregory Peck's widow and
Jack Lemmon's widow."
WG: Your CV lists appearing on the American TV series Hart to Hart.
DM: They did an episode here. The casting director needed a police
inspector. I was recommended. Before I came into EastEnders I always
played villains and coppers. So I got to arrest Stephanie Powers at
the Tower of London. everybody said, "You lucky bastard." She's a
lovely lady. When you got close to her, her face was full of freckles.
I still get money for that, also Dr Who, Upstairs Downstairs, many
WG: Didn't you go to the same school as the Krays?
DM: I'm older than them, but I knew their older brother Charlie
[better than Ron and Reg.] In the East End, you'd see each other in
WG: Can you please share any behind-the-scenes information about being
DM: About three or four months ago I was on set, and got back from
lunch. I'm in the Vic waiting to do the scene. A young designer about
22 is fiddling around with bits and pieces. I asked, "What time are we
supposed to be back?" She said 2 p.m. "It's 2 now." I said, "If I was
Robert Mitchum, I'd be pissed off." She asked, "Who's Robert Mitchum?
I said, "Are you winding me up? I'm the winder-up, not you." She said,
"No, I never heard of him." I said, "He's up there with Heston, Wayne,
Peck and Stewart." All these young people don't know these actors.
It's sad in a way.
WG: Americans who are obsessed with British culture are called
Anglophiles. What are Brits who are obsessed with American culture
DM: I don't know. But I've always wanted to be in a western.
Back to Latest Articles